By Meryl James-Sebro, Ph.D.
Adjunct Professor in Anthropology
At FGCU's roundtable discussion marking the second anniversary of the Haitian earthquake, Karen Curtiss, a donor relations officer with the Miami-based Food for the Poor, brandished two of Haiti's infamous mud pies.
Yes, seasoned mud that Haiti's women miraculously turn into food for themselves and their children.
It dramatized the continuing structural poverty and insecurity of Haiti's women and children that has been aggravated by the earthquake and post-earthquake scenarios.
Sadly, it is no surprise that women and children have suffered and remain particularly vulnerable to extreme levels of sexual violence and wide-scale neglect, heightened by the severe lack of gender sensitive approaches and basic medical services.
According to a Harvard white paper, there is overwhelming evidence that the level of rape and sexual violence against women and children has been overlooked not only by the government but by international actors as well. MINSTUAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti since 2004, has also been accused of not consulting with grassroots women's organizations, who have a better track record of assisting survivors of rape and gender-based violence.
In addition to the unavailability or inaccessibility of medical care, including post-rape medical care, there is a dearth of basic information on social and health services or where to get help. Added to this, the earthquake has eviscerated or completely wiped out social networks that would have provided some support for women and children. People are no longer able to attend the same churches or the same schools — if there are schools at all — with access to teachers they trust.
For many, there are no other family members. Women continue to be excluded from decision-making for communities, so they can make little representation for themselves and their children, or develop solutions from their own experiences.
The only measurement of success that specifically targeted women and children has been "improved nutritional status," in spite of the notorious mud pies.
Overall the relief plan for Haiti has failed to address women's obvious needs. It is widely reported that of the $1.4 billion that Americans gave in aid, only 38 percent was spent on recovery and rebuilding. Promised funds have either not been received or have been misspent.
According to Gender Action, a Washington-based organization that promotes gender justice in International Financial Institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in spite of the commitments these organizations make to promoting women's rights, very often their "strategic action" only serves to widen well-entrenched gender gaps and aggravate gender inequalities. Although one in three women worldwide are subjected to gender-based violence, IFIs, especially in situations of war or disasters — such as Haiti's tragic earthquake — are not quick to acknowledge or address it. In fact, Gender Action claims that IFIs aggravate conditions that feed gender-based violence (GBV) by supporting programs and policies that undermine women's incomes, and expose them to exploitative male-dominated environments, often leading to transactional sex or outright prostitution.
The World Bank recently approved a reported $500,000, specifically to address GBV and its long-lasting traumatic after effects, largely as a result of pressure from Gender Action and Haitian women activists. When, how, and to whom those funds are to be disbursed, however, concern even the least cynical.
A few bright spots exemplify the resilience of Haitian women. A project by Digital Democracy is facilitating the use of mobile phones to address GBV. Women, however, need greater access to ownership and use of the technology. Women are 21 percent less likely to own mobile phones, but the gap is closing as they recognize that mobile phones could often be the difference between life, death and disease.
Another bright spot is the recent U.S. policy decision to enshrine gender equality as one of the six core principles of aid effectiveness for U.S. programs, along with partnership, sustainability, cooperation, results and transparency. This means that in all U.S. humanitarian and crisis responses, programs will now be designed with both women and men in mind.